Before the Columbia Festival of the Arts box office even opened in 1996, tickets for the reading by Mary Oliver were long sold out.
Word had spread like wildfire about her appearance, and the famous Oliver, a quiet soul who didn’t travel much from her home in Massachusetts, read once, and only once, for HoCoPoLitSo. We tried for years to lure her back, but failed. Oliver died January 17, 2019, from lymphoma.
Before that June day in 1996, ninety writers sent in poems for a workshop, which Oliver conducted in the Slayton House dance studio. If you were one of those poets, we want to hear what Oliver said about your work. We hope you kept her notes.
After the workshop, Oliver packed Slayton House’s auditorium with 250 people. The late Lucille Clifton, another poet who is now no longer with us, introduced Oliver, the Pulitzer winner, this way, “To call her a nature poet is like calling Pavarotti a singer.”
Afterwards, Oliver, who is “reclusive, but not shy,” says HoCoPoLitSo founder Ellen Kennedy, chatted over chicken salad and fruit kebabs at the Kennedy home.
“I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together,” Oliver explained about her work.
She’s become an Instagrammable poet, an inspirational poet. She asked her readers, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” (link to “The Summer Day”)
But her work reaches people because it’s authentic, it’s true. Above all, she is a masterful poet.
Her images – of the grasshopper’s jaws moving sideways to mouth the sugar that Oliver fed her, of the lights going out behind her as journeys away from her home, of the wild geese streaking the sky – remain with me. I am always hoping that I can live like she did, “from day to day from/ one golden page to another.” (link to “Forty Years”)
by Susan Thornton Hobby
HCPLS Recording secretary
Tara Hart is a Co-Chair of HoCoPoLitSo, and she is known for her beautiful introductions to the guest authors that we host. Below is her introduction to Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spirs, and David Yezzi. These authors read at the Lucille Clifton Reading Series on October 26, 2018 at Howard Community College’s Monteabaro Recital Hall. The introduction has been edited for the blog.
HoCoPoLitSo’s autumn reading series is named for Lucille Clifton, our late artistic advisor, distinguished master poet, and dear friend. We seek to craft a fall event each year that honors the caliber of her poetry and contributions to poetry, but also honors her spirit of connection, inquiry, and social justice, and her love for life and learning. She always let us know if HoCoPoLitSo was up to the mark and we know we would have had her fullest approval and blessing for the season opening event with three master poets Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi.
These poets each have quite distinctive rhythms, tones, and subjects. But when I read their work in proximity to each other, fascinating connections emerge and start to tell a compelling story of the wonder of ordinary experience. When I say “wonder,” I do not mean it is all wonderful. But there is wonder in how many shades a life can hold, how many complexities and contradictions and paradoxes, and yes, how much darkness can be present yet still allow for light. In the work of these poets, you see free verse, but also elegantly structured quatrains, villanelles, and sonnets; there are some explicit references to other contemporary poets but also to King Lear, Keats, Emily Dickinson. These poets include a lot of snow in their poems, a lot of birds and flowers, dreams and ghosts, but also Instagram, humblebrags, and hashtags, anxiety medication, soap operas, game shows, videogames, even Patrick Swayze. There are terrifyingly timely poems about being a 21st century man with terrifying impulses. About guns, plagues, and tragedies in daylight. About those who abuse others’ trust and those who enable abusers. About inadequate rulers, about resistance, about the need to “stay human” amidst the news, the smartphones, and the loneliness.
These poets help us understand both the timeless and contemporary purposes of poetry, this singing and where it might come from. Using some of their own words now, we can see how poetry is “Like the weather that is never one thing.” It might be about making “bright things from shadows.” Poems might be stacks of perfectly balanced rocks or cairns, with words like roaring shells you hold up to your ear that say neither yes nor no, but to which we listen. Poets might be beggars with empty bowls peddling “poems that were never ours though we wrote them”; poets might write from bruised places or from the “place where a night/bird sings.”
All three poets’ work is full of wings (birds, ghosts, leaves, moths, bees, oars) “drumming and drumming.” They drum of ordinary regrets: our missed turns, going away for too long, getting lost, doing things that can’t be undone. Our desires, our clutter. Our “wingless feet.” Our ordinary worries: about children, about loss, about dying. “The terror of all that could befall me, you.”
These poets show us the nature of inquiry: “here in this place, there are no names on the map. There is no map.” They ask “What does it mean to be alive?” Why is “happiness so fleet”? “What is our hate made of?” “What will be left when each thing goes?” “Is it enough? To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?”
Finally, in Elizabeth Spires’ poem “Starry Night,” she gives us faith that the light of artists keeps travelling like stars, never darkening, never dying. As we stumble, they still shine, so we should keep looking up to them, working wonders.
This essay originally appeared on Nerdy Book Club and has been reposted here for HoCoPoLitSo readers with the permission of the author and Nerdy Book Club. The original posting can be found here: https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2018/11/15/a-long-way-to-go-on-gun-violence-by-laura-shovan/
We woke up on Thursday morning to news of another mass shooting in America, this time at a California bar. It was college night. As the mom of two college students, I was shaken once again. It had only been eleven days since Jews were gunned down in their Pittsburgh synagogue. Twelve since a man killed two people at a grocery store after he was unable enter a predominantly black church nearby.
Writers and publishers are producing a growing number of books for children and teens about gun violence. In This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, readers witness a mass school shooting through the eyes of several narrators. Marisa Reichardt’s Underwater offers a thoughtful study of a school shooting survivor who suffers from PTSD. The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas — in which a girl witnesses the police shooting her best friend, a black teen — is now a movie.
These are important books. Kids need these stories as they struggle to understand what we are all struggling with: gun violence is impacting their generation. But what they also need are books that carefully examine our culture’s relationship to violence.
Last weekend, a friend and I saw the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down. The verse novel was adapted for the stage by Martine Kei Green-Rogers and directed by Timothy Douglas. The play follows the book’s plot: When his older brother Shawn is shot and killed, fifteen-year-old Will follows the rules handed down by the men in his family: “No crying. No snitching. Always seek revenge.” The story takes place as Will rides his building’s elevator – gun tucked into the back of his pants – down to the street, where he plans to shoot his brother’s killer. During that ride, the ghosts of past gun violence in Will’s life visit him, forcing him to look at how each loss has hardened him. He begins to question what he is about to do.
This production was, remarkably, a one-act, one-man show, with actor Justin Weaks playing not only Will, but also the people he has lost. That choice drives home an important point: Will carries each murdered friend and family member deep in his psyche. Each ghost’s visitation peels back a layer of Will’s armor, and we see him feeling emotions most boys are taught to hide: fear, grief, sadness. I won’t go into the wonders of the staging – how the coffin-like elevator was recreated, its mirrored walls reflecting the actor’s face as Will reflects on the people he’s lost.
I am still trying to piece together my reactions to Long Way Down after reading the book, experiencing this production, and interviewing Jason Reynolds for a local television series called “The Writing Life.” What sets this book apart is that act of peeling back layers of grief. Readers connect with Will’s first-person voice straight away. We are already rooting for him to make a different choice, even as we understand his in-the-moment decision to punish the person who took his brother’s life. However, as Reynolds introduces us to the ghosts, the reader or audience member begins to understand intergenerational violence and how traumatizing it is for children, especially children of color.
I was grateful that after the standing ovation, a facilitator was on hand to help people process what we had just witnessed. As audience members shared their stories – best friends, siblings lost to gun violence – I was in denial. “Gun violence hasn’t touched me directly,” I thought. But of course, it has. My friend was at our local mall in Columbia, Maryland, during a shooting in 2014. She sheltered in place in a cramped store-room for hours before the all-clear was given. On New Year’s Day, 2017, my neighbor’s fifteen-year-old daughter – my daughter’s friend – was shot and killed by a classmate who had stolen a gun and broken into their house.
Another act of violence in our community was one of the inspirations for my recent middle grade novel, Takedown. On a winter evening in 2007, an ongoing argument between two groups of teens escalated. They went to an empty high school parking lot for a rumble. One boy, a highly-ranked wrestler in the county, brought a bat. He killed another teen that night. I remember sitting down with my son, who was ten years old at the time and part of the county’s tight-knit wrestling community. As a family, we talked about the idea that at any point that evening, the teens involved could have made another choice and walked away from the fight. In Long Way Down, Will’s elevator ride is his moment to decide whether he is going to walk away and step out of the cycle of violence.
Although I decided to tone down the violent moment in my story of a middle school girl who joins an all-boys wrestling team, writing about a traditionally male combat sport gave me an opportunity to look at this issue. And this week, I am reminded that our society is paying the price for celebrating violence among boys and men, whether we actively teach them to seek revenge, or we subtly look the other way under the guise of “boys will be boys.”
Books like Long Way Down are necessary, because they can help us talk with children and teens about the cost of violence, and what it means to walk away.
Laura Shovan’s debut middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, won several awards, including NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices honor book, and a Nerdy Book Club award for poetry. Laura’s second children’s novel, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Library selection. Look for her next book, A Place at the Table, co-written with author/activist Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools in her home state of Maryland.
BY LAURA YOO
All day Saturday, I was cocooned inside the warmth and protection of poetry at the 17th Biennial Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey. So I didn’t know what was going on out in the world and I didn’t know what would happen the next day. I didn’t know that another terrible news story was brewing. But maybe the poetry knew.
My friend and I left Columbia at 6:30 in the morning and arrived in Newark by 10:00. We planned to stay for 6 hours of poetry and head back home that night. We were ambitious.
At the very first session, Jan Beatty, Tina Chang, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Danez Smith blew us away. Their poetry tore me apart with its heartache, beauty, hope, violence, and revelation. Somehow, I felt like each poem was about me or for me. How could that be? How could every poem be about fathers or about being a mother? Of course, that’s not really true. Poems are about lots of things. But what I realized is that poems touch you and maybe even hurt you where you are most vulnerable. For me, I am most vulnerable in my identity as a mother to two boys and I am most sensitive about the loss of my father who died eight years ago. Those are the two places that are the softest and yet the toughest because that’s where I hold so much fear, joy, sadness, regrets, and hope.
At a session called “Crossing Boundaries,” I heard tenderness in Joy Ladin‘s reading, defiance in Natalie Scenters-Zapico‘s, and anger in Paul Tran‘s. The discussion that followed made me think about the complexity of boundaries – about how they work both ways. They mark inclusion and exclusion. They protect but also they reject. Barriers between English and Spanish; between man and woman; between gay and straight. As if there are these solid lines of boundary that can really contain us and separate us from one another. On the other hand, the poets reminded us, there are boundaries that we need, like privacy and the inner self.
In “Poetry and the News,” Tina Chang, Aaron Coleman, Safia Elhillo, and J.C. Todd, read their poems about how poems may be an antidote to the news even as they simultaneously speak of the news. Elhillo, who is Sudanese and Muslim, talked about being tired of being the subject of the news and of being asked to speak for “her people.” Her poems, which experiment with the form of the interview, made me think of a kind of subjugation through interrogation. Chang’s poems wove together the personal and the political, our own stories and news stories.
At the last session of the day, I got to hear Hieu Minh Nguyen, Nancy Reddy, sam sax, and J.C. Todd. And as Todd read the last line of the last poem for the session, the room went completely dark and silent – the power had gone out due to manhole covers blowing out in front of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center down the street. It seemed like a totally appropriate response to the powerful readings of these poets.
As Newark was burning below, green and black smoke oozing out from underground, and losing its power – literally but not literarily – my friend and I left and drove three hours back to Columbia. We talked nonstop during that ride about all that we had seen, heard, and felt. When we got home, we had more to say, so we continued our talk over 막걸리 (rice wine) and 부대찌개 (Korean “army stew”). There was poetry in those Korean soul foods, too.
The next day, I was still reeling from the trip when I saw many posts on Facebook and Instagram supporting the LGBTQ+ people. I thought, “What now? What’s going on?” I googled “transgender in the news” and saw the following headlines:
“The Trauma of the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Transgender People”
“Trump administration considers elimination of transgender recognition”
Dodge must have seen it coming. It was like the poets were predicting dire situations with their panels about boundaries, identities, bodies, and the news. With sessions like “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am: Poetry and Identity” and “Whose Body?” Dodge Poetry Festival was preparing us, giving us the energy and the ammunition we would need to engage in the political (and emotional) fight against moves that take away rights, take away protection, and take away personhood.
And I know, too, that all the poetry in the world cannot fix what needs to be fixed if we don’t vote.
Read poetry. Vote. That’s what I will do.
Join forces with author, library and HoCoPoLitSo to offer a book of dreams for everyone
The inside cover of Jason Reynolds’s book For Every One says it all. We’re supposed to pass it on. The book’s dedication reads, “For You. For Me.”
His book is about dreams, and how hard one must work to achieve them. He wrote about trying to focus on his ambitions:
“So I went out and bought all the books on all the ways to make dreams come true, laying out the how-to, somehow spinning life into a fantastic formula for dummies and dream chasers, written by experts and dream catchers who swear that I can one plus one and right foot left foot my way into fulfillment, never taking into consideration all this mess I got strapped to my back and my head and my legs and my heart.”Reynolds wants everyone to hear about following dreams. So does HoCoPoLitSo. The Howard County Library and HoCoPoLitSo are joining forces to bring Reynolds to speak to the East Columbia Library Oct. 9. And we’d like to share this gift of a book. The library and HoCoPoLitSo are raising money to give out 100 copies of For Every One to students who attend his reading. Pupils from Lake Elkhorn, Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake, and Harper’s Choice middle schools will be bused to the reading, joining lots of Reynolds’ fans at the event. Register here for the event. Every dollar raised is matched one to one by funds from the Kathleen Glascock Challenge, a memorial fund named for an inspiring Clarksville Middle School media specialist who believed that books could change lives. She and Reynolds would have had a lot to talk about. It’s hard not to get goose bumps when Reynolds, who didn’t read a book cover to cover until he was nearly 18, talks about teenagers. “All I want kids to know is that I see them for who they are and not who everyone thinks they are,” he told the Washington Post last year. Reynolds, now a best-selling author with nine books, a Newbery Honor, and National Book Award finalist on his resume, says he wants to tell the stories that he wasn’t seeing on library and bookstore shelves – tales of black and brown teenagers handling tough issues. His goal is “putting that on the page with integrity and balance, to acknowledge the glory and the brokenness. That’s all I want to do. It’s a lot, but so are they.” Librarians around the county can’t keep his books on the shelves, and they’re thrilled that Reynolds is coming to read. Anne Reis, media specialist at Homewood Center, the alternative school in Howard County, was introducing Jason Reynolds to two classes of “very reluctant readers,” as she called them. They were disruptive, she remembers, until she started playing a “The Daily Show” clip of Trevor Noah’s talk with Reynolds, who emphasized the importance of hip-hop to his writing, and how young people are the antidote to hopelessness. “They heard the truth of his message and that he respects them and wants to write for them … . They were completely silent,” Reis said. “A pin could have dropped and you would have heard it. Jason Reynolds has an authenticity in his writing that speaks to the kids at my school. They are psyched to meet him in October!” Donate here: https://hclibrary.org/classes-events/glascock-challenge-seeks-to-inspire-reluctant-readers
Susan Thornton HobbyRecording secretary, HoCoPoLitSo Board
I had never heard of Marilyn Chin. But there I sat in the hazy Smith Theatre, listening to the petite, flip-flop-clad lady unfold her Chinese heritage, her voice’s rich resonance baptizing life into her words. Peppered with rhetorical questions and salted with snark, Marilyn Chin’s poetry invited the audience into conversation. As she discussed her experience with assimilation, I thought back to my years of insecurity with my Nigerian identity.
During my childhood, I tugged at my belly, my hair, my skin. I hunched in over myself. But I remember watching a spoken word from YouTube during youth group, the same lines which had echoed through my house the entire week prior because my mom, the youth leader, had been so fascinated by the video. Ears straining to keep up with the whiplash tempo, the laughing cadence, I snapped my fingers, riveted by the rain of spitfire, desperately beckoning the words barked out of the poets’ lips to be mine.
Slam poetry was alive.
A tandem of voice and pulse, spoken word went beyond sonnets and “thou”s and lofty declarations of love; it playfully teased out slant-rhymes and sidestepped the conventions of language. Poetry, I discovered, could be as unorthodox as I wished, and listening to the crowd of adroit artists (cough-SarahKay-PatrickRoche-BlytheBaird-OmarHolmon-cough) has since stirred a hunger.
Maybe I am looking for truth, naked and unholy. Maybe I write because I’m looking to sing what could be my gospel, to scream it in the shower, to spit it into the mic, to whisper it in an ear, to let it breathe ink and paper and dust.
While I write, I’ve knocked on Petrarch’s door, revisiting the poetry I once scoffed, imbibing in myself a greater appreciation for the art. Analyzing syntax and diction is what I love to do—maybe because I regularly eye my friends’ texts. (There’s a world of difference between “ok” and “Okay.”) While I am yet to be convinced that every inch of a poem is birthed from divine inspiration, I nevertheless believe that the spectrum of poetry—from spoken word to the coffee-stained margins—contains a delicateness that ought to be explored with careful hands and open eyes. As a writer, I wish to infuse electric vulnerability in my writing, inviting readers and listeners to unwind, to laugh, to have conversation.
Eunice Braimoh finds herself in a limbo between cultures: in her room hangs the Nigerian flag, while Maryland’s mosaic fusion has grafted itself into her heart. As a writer exploring vulnerable curiosity, she wishes to symphonize conversation regarding race, gender, and diversity. When not effusively fangirling over slam poetry and intricate word-play, Eunice can be found writing (and rewriting) her own poetry and fiction. Previously recognized with two Regional Keys from the D.C. Metro Region, Eunice recently received a Silver Key for her poem “in which icarus does not drown”. She will be attending University of Maryland, College Park as an English major starting this fall.
Poetry doesn’t vote. It can’t rule. It sits on no juries. It signs nothing into law. It neither runs companies or organizes houses of worship. And, it never ever wins an Academy award or Olympic Gold Medal. Or, war. On all of these fronts that matter, poetry is powerless. And for that very reason, of course, it is incredibly powerful.
Poetry is our grins, our anger, your life, my death. It’s the birds that stitch air. It’s the soul of night, the feast of day, and that ever present caution that’s careless. Poetry doesn’t decide. It doesn’t provide. If it answers at all, it does so with questions. And, to be honest, poetry doesn’t care; it cares as deeply as wells do, yes, but it never brings you water. It wants nothing from you except wanting – this is probably its most gifting power.
And it soars, when allowed to, over just about anything else we can imagine. It’s not the clouds above so much, but our need for them. Said all at once, poetry is powerful for what it cannot be, and for the dreams it wants.
If you should ever encounter a poem that makes you jump, ask yourself why. Most likely, the answer – if there is one – will be from so far-fully inside you that ancestors will wink.
Finally, poetry is really nowhere and so it’s just about everywhere around us. It lives in the corner of your eye. It watches everything from the side. Poetry is the best glancer of all. It also aches with whatever is gone. And, it cheers – even raves – for what may never be. All to say, thank goodness – and badness – for poetry, and for our never being completely sure how powerfully potent it really is.
Hiram Larew’s work has appeared most recently in Little Patuxent Review, FORTH, vox poetica, Poetry Super Highway, Poets & Artists, Every Day Poems, Lunaris Review (Nigeria), Amsterdam Quarterly, and The Wild Word. Author of three collections, he’s been nominated for four national Pushcart prizes, is a member of the Shakespeare Folger Library’s poetry board, and organizes several events in Prince George’s County, Maryland and beyond including Poetry X Hunger and The Poetry Poster Project. He is a global hunger specialist, and lives in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
This piece first appeared in Echo World, and subsequently in Poets & Artists, Tales from the Forest, Miriam’s Well (blog) and Huffington Post’s Thrive Global.
A blog post by Laura Yoo
“My favorite part of the book was when James’s parents died!” my 9-year old son Sammy yelled. And everyone around the table yelled back, “What? Oh my God! Why?” He had a perfectly reasonable response: “Because! That’s what made the whole story possible!”
Five 9-year old boys sat around the kitchen table at the home of Brooke Dalesio on a gorgeous, sunny April afternoon talking about Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. School had gotten out three hours early, and the five boys were invited to the first installment of the Boys’ Book Club organized by Brooke for her son Nate and four of his friends. Brooke is a reading specialist who currently works with education majors at University of Maryland College Park, supervising their student teaching. She also works with the reading team as a Title 1 reading tutor at the five boys’ school, Longfellow Elementary in Howard County, Maryland.
Back in February, when Brooke texted me with, “I have a crazy idea that I thought we could do together,” I responded with, “I’m scared.” She proposed to host a book club for a few of Nate’s friends, including Sammy. After a few more text messages back and forth about the logistics, I answered the call with “What the hell! Let’s try it!”
At first, Sammy wasn’t so sure. I guess he just didn’t know what to expect. He asked, “Is it like school work? It sounds like school work.” I assured him that it’d be EVEN MORE FUN than school work. Brooke got the ball rolling by emailing the moms, and Sammy started reading James and the Giant Peach. He loved it right away. When he was finished, he handed it to me (I had not yet read the book) and moved onto Fantastic Mr. Fox. He was counting the days til the first book club meeting. (I cheated by listening to the audio book of James and the Giant Peach, which I highly recommend, by the way.)
For the first book club meeting, Brooke offered fresh peach slices and peach smoothies for snack. They also munched on peach flavored gummy snacks that Sammy and I found at Lotte. While the boys enjoyed their snacks, they started the meeting by sharing general impressions of the book. They kept raising their hands – just like in school – instead of having a conversation. But that was okay – they’d need practice.
They took turns picking discussion questions that Brooke had prepared. The boys got a kick out of the question asking them to find “juicy words” from the book. They loved “ghastly,” “mammoth,” “frantically,” “brute,” and “peculiar.” (Later, one of the boys used “peculiar” in his sentence, just casually throwing it in there as if he’d always known that word.) Brooke told them about British English versus American English, and we listened to a short clip of the audio book on my phone so we could hear the accent. Other questions asked about their favorite characters, how James changes throughout the book, and about the role of magic in this fantasy novel. My favorite question, though, asked the boys to imagine other ways that James and his friends could have gotten out of some of the sticky situations during their adventures, because it encouraged creative problem solving.
After the discussion, the boys created a storyboard of the novel using a long piece of paper Brooke had prepared. They had to decide how to break up the story and how they’d represent the important events in the book. This part got a little hairy and Brooke and I offered some suggestions, but we let them sort it out. (Brooke, by the way, is much better at letting them be than I am. I’m, shall we say, much more “hands on.”) And of course they did a fantastic job.
Brooke did the facilitating, and I enjoyed my peach smoothie and observed with fascination. I loved the level of energy in the room. The boys were excited to talk and to share their ideas. Sure, they all got a bit silly at times. Occasionally, one of them would get up and walk around the room – or dance. They talked on top of each other. Sometimes they got excited and yelled. Still, Brooke kept her cool and steered the group back to the table and back to the book. Other times, she just let them get their energy out for a minute or two. I was impressed. This was a serious level up from “playdate.”
The boys agreed on The BFG for their next book club meeting, which will be in June. After the official book club meeting was adjourned, the little literary scholars dashed outside to play basketball and soccer in the sun while enjoying peach flavored ice pops.
“It was awesome,” Sammy said to me as we left Nate’s house. He cannot wait til June. I joined my first book club when I was 38 years old, so clearly Sammy is getting a serious head start thanks to Ms. Brooke’s “crazy idea” that turned out to be quite awesome.
A guest blog post by Nsikan Akpan
Characters in stories are hardly given enough credit for their bravery of taking on the task of representing the idiosyncrasies and lifestyles that the public prefers to keep private. Clare and Irene in Nella Larsen’s Passing are appropriate examples. Irene’s complexion is light enough to pass for a white woman but makes the choice to side with her true community. On the other hand, Clare, Irene’s friend from childhood, is also light enough to pass for white and finesses this fact to marry Bellew, a white racist. As readers maneuver their way through the lonely, privileged lives of both Irene and Clare, we find that wealth and passing for the sake of wealth may not be worth one’s peace of mind. It can lead to a fatal end.
Passing by Nella Larsen examines themes of hypocrisy, physical (racial) as well as social “passing,” and the sacrifices made for the American dream. Passing is a form of pretending, and sometimes we cross boundaries when playing pretend. What makes Larsen’s work significant is that it displays passing as an example of natural human desire to survive. Judging Clare equates to judging anyone that has been put in a situation where the only way out is to be something they are not. Humankind has done worse for survival. Still, Clare’s life is a lesson: one can make it to the other side and realize there is nothing there for them.
I am reminded of O. J. Simpson’s story. Simpson, a black man, had been a supreme football player, the first to run over 2,000 yards in one season. He was an athletic mogul. He helped paved the way for athletes to not only play the sport of their choice, but to do so while starring in movies, commercials, and gaining fortune from various endorsements. He was treated as an American hero and embraced by white America. If Larsen’s Clare had her pale skin that allowed her to pass as white, Simpson had wealth and his white wife that made up for his chestnut skin color and allowed him to pass in white society. In 1978, Simpson starred in a famous Hertz commercial, running through an airport as people – notably, all white people – cheered him on. “Go Juice, go!” They hailed. Until they stopped. In 1994, Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. When Simpson was accused of murder, he became black again.
Passing is seductive. Joe Bell, a childhood friend, said of Simpson, “He is seduced by white society.” In Larsen’s novel, Clare was seduced enough to want to be a part of that society, so much so that she became a part of it. As examples of passing – physical and social – Clare and Simpson demonstrate that passing does not turn out well in fiction or in real life. In Larsen’s words, Clare “had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold. The next thing she was gone.”
While reading Passing, I realized that there are many types of passing. I have come to recognize my own privilege of intellectual passing. I am an educated and cultured black woman who has sat next to distinguished authors and poets. These stimulating cerebral experiences allow me to go into spaces where my color is not considered because my ability to articulate trumps any stereotype that is connected to me. Or so it seemed. It turns out that intellectual passing connects very much with racial and social passing. We must put an end to associating intelligence with whiteness.
I have made a conscious choice not to give into passing. What Clare showed me is this: One can fool people with skin but not with soul. Throughout high school, despite my dark skin, I made myself “more palatable” for my white counterparts. Every time I had an opinion on something, I tried my best to express it very nicely, or sometimes I’d say nothing at all, knowing people might take it the wrong way. Fortunately, I have grown out of that nonsense. I am who I am. An exit is always available, but for me, passing is never an option. It’s too exhausting. In my own skin, I am at rest.
A blog post by Laura Yoo
Expanding and Deepening the Reading List: How Centennial Lane Elementary School is providing diverse books to its students
“All children and young adults deserve excellent literature which reflects their own experience and encourages them to imagine experiences beyond their own.” – Cooperative Children’s Book Center
One afternoon when my son was 4 years old, he began to jump up and down excitedly while watching TV. He was screaming, “Mommy! She’s talking in Korean!” Indeed, a cat-like animal in a cartoon called Littlest Pet Shop was speaking in Korean while the other animal and human characters tried to understand her. The Korean-speaking animal was a ferret named Jebbie Cho who later meets a recurring Korean character on the show, a human named Youngmee Song.
My son hears Korean all the time at home, spoken by his grandma and by mommy and daddy when they don’t want him to know what they’re saying. But seeing Korean characters and hearing Korean names on TV was special. His family’s cultural identity was being reflected back to him. He saw himself. And what I saw on his little face was a sense of validation and pride. What I witnessed was the power of representation.
At Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City, Maryland, parents, staff, and teachers understand this power of representation, particularly as it is reinforced in children’s books. With the support of school staff and teachers, the members of the CLES PTA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee created a book list with 70 titles that represent various nationalities and heritages as well as LGBTQ, dis/abilities, and religions. Many of the books also explore diversity as a general theme.
The CLES DEI BOOK LIST includes titles like Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, a GR 4-6 book about an 11-year old girl with a photographic memory and cerebral palsy; Skin Again by bell hooks, a GR K-4 book about skin – about what it is and what it isn’t; and The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz, a GR 1-5 book about the history of Native Americans. The CLES’s list demonstrates a wide definition of diversity and aims to be as inclusive as possible.
“[It’s important] the kids see themselves in those books,” says Sabina Taj, the chair of the committee. The project, which is coordinated by Anu Prabhala, has received a donation of $500 from a parent to achieve the goal of purchasing some of these books for the school’s media center. The committee’s work has been supported by CLES Principal, Amanda Wardsworth, and the list of books has been reviewed and approved by the school’s Media Specialist, Marnie Beyer. “This was truly a labor of love,” says Ying Matties, a member of the DEI Committee.
“I’m hoping each school asks the diverse populations of the individual school and teachers to use this process as a model to create their own,” says Ms. Taj. She emphasizes the importance of focusing on community involvement in gathering ideas and feedback from various stakeholders. Then, she says, the various lists compiled by many schools could be combined to create an even more comprehensive and representative sample of books for the students in Howard County.
This vision reflects a national debate and discussion about representation in children’s books. A national non-profit organized called We Need Diverse Books, founded by YA and MG writer Ellen Oh, envisions “a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” There is tremendous power in seeing what is possible. As Marian Wright Edelman famously said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This idea was reiterated when Misty Copeland became the first African American to be named principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre and when Sheridan Ash set up a program for PwC called Women in Tech. When the Time Magazine published its “Firsts” issue about female firsts, they titled it, “Seeing is Believing.”
However, at Centennial Lane Elementary School, it’s not just Muslim children or children with two dads who will benefit from reading these books. As B.J. Epstein, professor of literature who researches and teaches children’s literature, writes in The Conversation, “Research on prejudice shows that coming in contact with people who are different – so-called ‘others’ – helps to reduce stereotypes.” So, the effect is twofold: children will learn about themselves and children will learn about the experiences and lives outside their own. Duncan Tunatiuh, author and illustrator, notes in Language Arts, “we need multicultural books so that different kinds of children can see themselves reflected in the books they read, and so that children can learn about people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.”
The Diverse Books project at Centennial Lane Elementary School is one of the various ways that parents, staff, and teachers are trying to encourage and implement curriculum that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. The DEI Committee is also currently working with the school administration on organizing Community Circles, a venue for diverse parents to provide in-person feedback to the school on how to make it more inclusive to all its constituents.
Note: To learn about setting up a DEI Committee in your school, please contact Sabina Taj <email@example.com>. For more information on the CLES DEI Committee’s work, please contact Anu Prabhala <firstname.lastname@example.org>.